Sunday, 3 December 2017

Before I Wake (2017) - Movie Review
The plot: After the death of their son, parents Jessie (Kate Bosworth) and Mark (Thomas Jane) adopt Cody (Jacob Tremblay). They soon discover that whenever Cody goes to sleep, his dreams manifest themselves in the real world. As both Jessie and Mark take comfort in what Cody’s gift can do, it soon becomes clear that not everything in his dreams is benevolent and his nightmares could prove something far more dangerous for his new parents.

Bosworth as the mother continues to show Flanagan and Howard’s refreshing approach to female character writing, giving her very definable faults (and potentially disastrous ones at that), but by film’s end, she shows a sense of strength and compassion that is as startling as it is heart-squeezing. Jane as the father is made of cool, having remarkably warm chemistry with Tremblay and really getting across that he is a man who cares about children. Also, “gamer dad” is an archetype that I want to see more of, especially if it’s done as well as this. Tremblay, much like his breakout role in Room, is playing a child meant to show how a child’s mind comprehends emotionally complex situations, and he is still amazingly capable in that capacity. The way he shows understanding of what he is capable of doing, both good and bad, is far beyond his years but not without losing that innocent viewpoint.
Annabeth Gish does well as the Hobsons’ caseworker, Dash Mihok gets some frightfully memorable moments to show how Cody’s powers can affect those around him, and Topher Bousquet as the Canker Man, the creature of Cody’s nightmares, both looks and feels like precisely that.

The idea of dreams becoming a frightening reality have become rather commonplace in the realms of horror, especially in the wake of A Nightmare On Elm Street and its numerous copycats. However, rather going for full reality-warping high concept depictions, the way Cody’s dreams manifest here are actually a lot simpler than that. The use of butterflies, along with serving as a rather interesting visual metaphor for what is truly going on, also give the waking world of Cody’s dreams this eerie tranquillity. It’s basically the rather unnerving idea of where the dream world and the real world collide as filtered through a child’s sense of wonder, and when it starts out, the visuals absolutely nail that concept.
But as they grow more monstrous, the film ends up using that same simplistic approach to the ends of horror, something else that is done quite well. The Canker Man, both in design and in action, presents itself first through a warping of the same wondrous imagery and then as a monster that consumes all that it touches. Again, while its design and methods end up playing more into the psychological parts of the story, the concept combined with Flanagan’s trademark use of blurred vision so that we can see it but not all of it makes for some very unsettling set pieces.

But if I’m being honest, this isn’t really a horror film… not in its entirety, at least. It’s a horror film in the same way as Terry Gilliam’s Tideland or even this year’s A Monster Calls: The tragedies of life as filtered through the understanding of a child. For as much as innocence and purity have been attached to child characters in fiction for about as long as children themselves have existed on this earth, that same mindset also leads to rather dark ideas. When a child’s understanding of the world is inherently stunted due to lack of prolonged exposure to it, the way they try and reconcile what is going on around them often leads to the fantastical, the irrational, or both.
When combined with how Jessie and Mark deal with the loss of their own son, the film becomes a tale about how people deal with grief and loss, a common trend in Mike Flanagan’s work, and how those feelings manifest themselves. Sometimes it’s an unhealthy need to relive what has already past rather than overcoming it, sometimes it’s sheer denial of the event rather than even approaching it to try and overcome it, and sometimes it merges with one’s own viewpoint of the world that ends up shifting one’s understanding of it.

The other reason why I hesitate in calling this a horror film is that the truly horrific elements only start up at around the hour mark. Before it, the film mainly exists in this dreamscape painted by Cody that is used less for scares and more for pathos and character development. Then the final reel kicks in and this starts to feel all too familiar, and not in the best of ways. With scary children being a rather long-living staple of classic horror, there is a rather strict formula surrounding them in fiction, particular with them as main characters. Once the terror officially kicks in, this film starts to follow that same road, right down to the parent who investigates the child’s dark past to try and discover why these things are happening.
The pacing takes a bit of a beating at this point too, almost as if Flanagan himself realised that he spent a little too much time focusing on the innocence and, when it came time for horror, he squeezed most of it into the final reel. Not to say that the horror is bad, as it definitely brings some chills, or that the ending isn’t satisfying in both its intent and ultimate execution; it’s just the half-hour preceding it could have been a lot smoother.

All in all, while honestly a bit weaker in terms of balancing family drama and supernatural horror than Flanagan’s other works, there’s still a lot to like about this. The acting is solid, the visuals keep simple to great effect, and while the story progression can go a bit off-the-rails near the end, the writing still highlights that need for the fantastical to come to terms with things that all too real and scary. It may be one of the weaker instances in Mike Flanagan’s oeuvre, but looking at the individual pieces and how they end up coming together, it still feels true to it and succeeds because of that same understanding of how people react to the darkness.

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